Whether your child has hearing loss, has a diagnosed speech disorder or is a baby at the critical stage for language development, you may wonder how a world full of people wearing masks could impact his or her development.
Think about how much a baby inching toward a hot oven reads “fear” on her mother’s face and learns about the danger of the situation, or the amount of information a toddler interprets from a face that is laughing or scared or angry. The development of this emotional communication is referred to as “social referencing” and occurs between infancy and the early pre-school years.
“Young children really rely on these facial expressions to know love and to be comforted, to be able to look at their parents’ faces to learn all kinds of feelings. Then when you factor in children with hearing loss, it’s especially important for them to see and learn from faces,” said Dr. K. Todd Houston, a speech and language pathologist in Akron Children’s ENT Center and director of the Telepractice and eLearning Lab at The University of Akron’s School of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology.
Dr. Houston and Dr. Maria Leno, a pediatric audiologist, are following hospital protocol during the pandemic in wearing face coverings but they are wearing either masks with clear windows or clear face shields so their patients can read their lips and see their facial expressions.
The American Cochlear Implant Alliance has issued a statement suggesting that face shields be used by teachers as an alternative to face masks in school settings. According to the statement, face shields “allow better access to speech reading and facial clues, while providing a reduction in inhaled virus of 92% at 6 feet.”
Since it looks like the coronavirus pandemic will require mask wearing for at least a year or until a vaccine is widely available, Drs. Houston and Leno offer these tips for parents:
- If your child is being seen by a pediatric speech therapist or audiologist, don’t forgo those crucial appointments out of fear of the virus. Hospitals like Akron Children’s have adopted many safeguards such as screening all visitors for illness as they enter buildings. If you still have concerns, ask if therapy via Telehealth is an option.
- Masks do not need to be worn within your household unless you are receiving visitors (and even then continue to keep the suggested 6 feet of social distancing).
- If your child is doing any type of online learning, check to see if closed captioning/subtitling is an option.
- If your child is on an Individualized Education Plan at school for a speech or hearing concern, make sure he or she is receiving services however his or her school year looks in the fall. Akron Children’s clinicians can help with supporting documentation and offering counsel to their professional partners in the schools.
- One important strategy for all parents: get your child’s attention before you start talking. Say his or her name. Make sure you have eye contact. If possible, get on the child’s level. Avoid talking from another room, and, if possible, state the topic of the discussion before diving in too far.
- Whenever possible, narrate what you are doing. Even if in a grocery store and wearing a mask, continue to talk about what you are buying and what you see around you. At home, while playing, this type of dialogue could look something like this: “Our blocks are going up. They are getting taller. Here’s another. It’s going up, up, up. Oh, no, they fell down! Shall we start again?”
- Read to your children every day (strive for 15 minutes minimum) and add a little dramatic license when reading. Your baby is never too young to be read books.
- Don’t get discouraged if your baby doesn’t seem interested in reading books or asks to hear the same stories over and over. Just keep at it.
- And don’t think you have to stick closely with the text in the book. Point to pictures and talk about shapes, colors, actions of characters. Ask your child to predict what may happen next.
- Have the TV and radio turned off unless you are enjoying a show. It’s easy to get into the habit of talking over the background noise.
“It’s all about providing both quantity and quality of the interaction,” said Dr. Houston. “So, be sure to pause when your child responds expressively, and give him or her time to imitate you to reinforce the language development. You want a back and forth, even with the youngest of infants making their first sounds.”
Developing good habits start early, and don’t cut back on the conversations or reading aloud when your child begins reading on his own. By reading together and talking about what you are seeing and doing and what’s happening in life will expose your child to an infinite number of new words.
“Ultimately, all of these things — talking, reading, singing — comes down to literacy,” said Dr. Leno. “We want our kids to be literate, to develop a language base that will let them not only learn to read but read to learn.”